Getting to Know the Dalai Lama

The monk who has lead Tibetans for 68 years sees the Beijing Olympics as a chance to convert the Chinese to his cause

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Which little boy could resist such a story? A young prince, in disguise, was fleeing over range after range of the highest mountains in the world, away from his gold-roofed palace in the shadow of the snowcaps, towards the freedom of the plains. Soldiers from an invading army were in fierce pursuit. Every night, as my parents and I turned on the wireless in the last days before television – March 1959 – a scratchy broadcast would crackle out from the BBC announcer saying that now the young ruler (a monk, to boot) was a little closer to a new life, and now his pursuers were closing in on him. Watchfires of the invading troops could be seen nearby and planes (friendly or malign?) were sometimes spotted overhead.

The minute the 14th Dalai Lama arrived safely in India, his first words to the 13-year-old brother who accompanied him were, astonishingly: “Now we are free”. At that moment, my father, then teaching philosophy at Oxford, realised that a great treasure, a repository of centuries of long-secluded wisdom, was available to the outside world as never before. My father sailed to India and requested an audience with the 24-year-old Dalai Lama, at a time when few people were knocking on his door – indeed, few people even knew who – or what – a Dalai Lama was then. Always ready to oblige, the leader of the Tibetans invited my father to visit him in his new home in the Indian Himalayas, and the two philosophers enjoyed a long conversation on Buddhism, on how to bring a larger view and a long-term vision to realpolitik, on the subject of my father’s research on (and the Dalai Lama’s mounting fascination with) Gandhi and his work to lead a non-violent opposition to an occupying power.

At the end of their conversation, my father, like any proud parent, confessed he had a three-year-old son back in Oxford who had taken a keen interest in the story of the Dalai Lama’s flight. With his characteristic gift for the right gesture, the Tibetan leader found a photo of himself when just five years old, already sitting on the Lion Throne in Lhasa, and sent it to me through my father. Though I couldn’t in my infancy understand exactly who this figure was, I put the picture in a frame and, whenever I felt burdened, or thought life could be hard on a small boy alone in a foreign country, I looked at this five-year-old, already leader of 6m people, and things fell into perspective.

The picture accompanied me to California when my family moved there four years later, and stayed on my desk for 30 years in all. Then one day a forest fire struck up in the dry Californian hills around our house and within minutes it was all around our home, flames 70ft high, whipped on by 70mph winds, reducing everything we knew and owned to ash. Images are not permanent, I began to understand, as the photo left my life for good. But what they stand for, ideally, may endure. Although my life has been intimately connected with the Dalai Lama’s for almost as long as I can remember, I have never been asked so much about the beginning of the connection as this summer, when all the world looked (for a few months, at least) at Tibet, and more people began to wonder how the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetans can speak for patience, forbearance and dialogue while the Chinese government continues to sentence Tibetans to six years in prison just for carrying pictures of their exiled leader, to flood Tibet with Han Chinese (“demographic aggression”, as the Dalai Lama calls it) and in effect to wipe a distinctive and ancient country off the map. This is Tibet’s last hope, many in the exiled Tibetan community have been shouting, in the months leading up to this month’s Olympics in Beijing; if we don’t act now, Tibet as we know it will be gone forever.

The Dalai Lama clearly worries about this every day, and when last I travelled with him, for a week across Japan last November, he spoke constantly about the need for China to restore basic freedoms of speech and thought, even if it were to remain officially in control of Tibet. “Premier Hu Jintao’s slogan of `Harmonious Society’,” he said at one point, “I fully support! But harmony cannot come from the barrel of a gun.” As the leader responsible for all Tibetans – and a leader whom Tibetans regard as an incarnation of a god (of compassion, no less) – he clearly lives out everything his people go through, and understands their impatience and frustration after 49 years of seeing their land overrun. And yet as a monk, committed to both the wider view and to the good of all beings, Chinese as well as Tibetan, he knows that any defiant gesture will only provoke more brutality from a notoriously prideful and prickly government and that violence against China will only bring more violence and suffering upon Tibetans – and Chinese – who have suffered too much already. The only way to protect Tibetans – and Chinese – is to wait until the leadership in Beijing comes to its senses. Isolating China will only have the most dangerous consequences for all.

The first time I met the Dalai Lama in person – when I was a teenager, in 1974, travelling up to his modest yellow house at the end of the road in a makeshift settlement, surrounded by pine trees, in the Indian hill station of Dharamsala – I knew nothing about the fact that he had already been negotiating with Chinese leaders, particularly Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, for more than 20 years; had recently (in a move that prefigured what we saw this year) told the CIA-sponsored Tibetan guerrillas waging a violent resistance against the Chinese to lay down their arms (after Washington had come to a detente with Beijing) and was working towards sending fact-finding delegations to Chinese-occupied Tibet a few years later. All I could see was the thick monsoonal fog that blanketed his house as he talked with my father about emptiness, reality and compassion. It seemed to ignorant me as if these two philosophers were sitting above the clouds, thrashing out ideas that Plato or Plotinus might have recognised.

In truth, the Dalai Lama is a hyper-realist, who constantly enjoins people not to hope or wait or pray for a miracle to come, but to look at reality closely, unblinkingly, as through a scientist’s microscope, and then see what can be done with it. His favourite adjectives, as you may notice when you listen to him speak, are “logical”, “realistic” and “practical”; and his own life, being enthroned at the age of four, receiving envoys from Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the age of seven and facing a monastic civil war in Lhasa when he was 11, has never allowed him to traffic in abstractions or to sit above the clouds. The fiercest I have ever seen him came once when, 20 years ago, I carelessly referred to him as a “Living Buddha” and a “god-king” in an article I wrote. The whole point of Buddha’s teaching, and therefore of his own, he reminded me next time I saw him, was that all of us are humans, trying our hardest to awaken the potential we have within us, while acknowledging that all of us are mortal, flawed and always works-in-progress. “Lord Buddha I really consider to be a scientist,” he said last year in Japan, invoking once more his empirical, scientist’s contention that every word of the Buddha’s, let alone the Dalai Lama’s, should be thrown out if it were shown to be faulty by new research. If there is any blind faith involved in this contest between a spiritual and a material view of the world, it is on the side of the latter.I came to appreciate this commitment to reality, and how quietly the Dalai Lama was advancing a quite radical political position, only when I began listening and talking to him as a journalist in the early 1980s. Nearly every politician I have covered in my quarter-century of journalism, travelling from North Korea to El Salvador to Beirut to Tibet, speaks of the future (and the promises he offers) or the past (and the grievances he promises to redress). The Dalai Lama was the rare leader who seemed committed to the present. The future is unknowable, he suggests, although we must always plan for it, so as best to work in harmony with it, and the past is history, no longer subject to change. Insofar as we have potential to find better solutions, it takes place right now, right here, and nowhere else.

Twelve years ago, when we held a series of conversations in his home in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama confessed that he was “addicted” to something. What could it be, I thought? Impermanence? Non-attachment? No, he said: he was addicted to the BBC World Service broadcast every morning; he listened to it during his four hours of morning meditation, and if he was travelling and could not catch the news, he “really felt something was missing from my day”. When you listen to him address journalists, you notice that he takes pains over dates, has a scholar’s particularity about terms (like, in fact, “Living Buddha”), and draws his references from the Korean war, which he remembers; his talks with the mayor of Shanghai in 1955 and what he learned about carbon footprints from a scientific authority just yesterday. It’s well-known that he is the rare religious figure who loves to talk to scientists to learn what neuroscience and biology can teach him about the human condition; but what is more significant is that he uses that scientific procedure in his work as a politician.

It is this rigorous investigation of things as they are that often gets lost when you look at his counter-intuitive political positions in recent months – many Tibetans, and millions across the world, have been calling out for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics, and agitating to confront China directly, while he says the Games should go on as planned. The Dalai Lama always remembers that the Tibetan people are outnumbered by the Chinese by 215 to one, and so romantic gestures or Gandhian protests won’t work. Unlike most Tibetans in exile, he has spent a year travelling across China, and has seen how Beijing’s leadership works and thinks, having been trying to negotiate with it for 58 years. Besides, the majority of people in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa now are Chinese; so no resolution of the Tibetan issue will mean nothing unless and until it takes in the rights of the Chinese, who are everywhere in Tibet.Tibet’s only weapon, really, is that it is the rare freedom movement that hasn’t resorted to violence yet (as he told me years ago, it doesn’t have oil, and is never going to engage the West). China has no reason to give up a region two-thirds the size of western Europe and strategically placed at the centre of Asia, which is traditionally known in Chinese as the “Western Treasure House”. And as a realist, he realises that it is important to support Tibet’s rightful needs for basic human rights, but in doing so not to devastate – or to demonise – Chinese individuals, who have the same rights.

China’s claims, moreover, that it has brought material developments and much-needed modern facilities to a land that had been dangerously cut off and impecunious are not entirely baseless, and the Dalai Lama often stresses, as he did to me last November, that Tibetans have much to gain from remaining a part of the People’s Republic. This is one reason he has not called for independence from China for more than 20 years, and seeks only autonomy, whereby China could control Tibet’s foreign affairs and defence so long as Tibet could control its domestic matters. And when Beijing talks about feudalism in old Tibet, it is echoing something the Dalai Lama himself implied when, arriving in exile, he lost no time in making up a new democratic constitution for Tibet for the first time in its history. Tibet was never perfect, he is the first Tibetan to say, and was certainly full of divisions of its own – but does remedying its imperfections require such brutality and oppression, wiping out religion and freedom along with real backwardness?

Part of what makes the Tibetan situation so archetypal and so potent, in fact, is that it turns upon a universal clash of values, represented by a monk on the one side and stock markets on the other. For Beijing, “liberation” means freeing Tibet from the remoteness and material underdevelopment that certainly afflicted it; yet for a Buddhist, liberation has only to do with freeing oneself from the ignorance and delusion that lead to needless suffering. No one can perform this function for you, Tibetans classically believe, and all the material progress in the world, the Dalai Lama often stresses, is not going to help you if you remain impoverished (isolated or confused) within.

The poignancy and frequent tragedy of the Tibetan situation turns around the fact that China’s leaders clearly see that the Dalai Lama has forms of authority (moral, spiritual and invisible) that they lack, and all the growth rates and skyscrapers they amass can’t quite reverse that lack. Stalin once famously asked: “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?”, thus trying to bypass the more central fact that the Pope speaks for the opposite of divisions (for communion, in effect, and peace). When we listen to Beijing call the Dalai Lama, a champion of interdependence, a “splittist”, and refer to him as an “enemy of the Tibetan people”, when we hear Chinese leaders call him, as one did this March, a “jackal in monk’s robes and an evil spirit with a human face and the heart of a beast”, we realise that they have to trade in schoolyard taunts because they have no legitimate moral case to bring against him. All the world fears Beijing, even as much of the world listens to and supports the Dalai Lama.I sometimes think, in fact, that the situation will come to its climax this month with the Olympics, which speaks to something fundamental in every society or soul. Beijing finds itself in command of all the world’s attention – and yet is never in any way seen as a spiritual or moral authority. And the same dialogue (between what the Dalai Lama calls “conventional” and “ultimate” reality) plays out within the Tibetan community itself.

For three of the past five springs, I have based myself in Dharamsala, just across the road from the Dalai Lama’s house, and set his views against those of the ever more restless Tibetans who can barely contain their frustration and sorrow as he counsels them to think in terms of the next generation, or even the next century. From afar, the debate looks to be one between universal human need and unworldly tolerance. But up close, one sees that it is really a struggle between reckless passion and pragmatism. A terrorist act, the Dalai Lama suggests, may rouse the conscience of the world for a few days – and then squander its respect for generations to come.

Looked at in a certain light, he freely volunteered to me 12 years ago, his policy, of maximum concessions towards the Chinese has produced no visible effect, as China continues to crack down on Tibet harder and harder. But that does not make it a mistaken policy – and it may in fact pave the way for something entirely unexpected. One of the Dalai Lama’s closest friends and colleagues, Vaclav Havel, was imprisoned one day, and eight weeks later was unanimously chosen to be president of Czechoslovakia. Another of the Dalai Lama’s closest friends and champions, Desmond Tutu, woke up one day in apartheid-shadowed South Africa, never having been able to vote in his 62 years, and woke up the next in a free (albeit troubled and even more dangerous) South Africa.

Three years ago, the Dalai Lama told me that he realised that his people, after his death, may not be able to contain their longing for violent resistance; but as China slowly moves towards a more inclusive sense of things, such action will only retard the process. Besides, India has generously sheltered the community of Tibetan exiles on the grounds that they are spiritual refugees, not political activists. For Tibetans to make mischief from their Indian exile is to hurt the Chinese, harm the Tibetan cause – and, in fact, to put into a difficult position the country that has hosted them so selflessly for so long.For many years, the Tibetan leader has been saying that he does not expect the Chinese government will change overnight and reverse its policies of a half-century (though he is more than ready whenever it does do so); but he was and is confident that more and more Chinese individuals, one by one, and slowly, will realise that they have more in common with Tibetans than differences, and that they can now have access to Tibetan wisdom as people in London and Sydney and Paris do. Officially denied any religious life for almost 60 years, they can in time discover that there is, in fact, a great and deep religious tradition alive within their own borders. The last time I flew to Lhasa, in 2002, a surprisingly large number of Chinese I saw were, just as westerners do, making offerings at the central Jokhang Temple, seeking out Tibetan lamas, even picking up Tibetan Buddhist texts.

When I travelled with the Dalai Lama last year, we stepped one autumn day into an elegant conference room, high up in a Yokohama hotel, and as soon as the Dalai Lama came in, the 60 or so assembled there began to sob and to perform full prostrations on the floor. They sat, raptly, on the ground, disdaining the chairs laid out for them, as he offered advice about Buddhist study and, when he was finished, clustered around him, desperate for a touch, a blessing. Every one of the devotees was a Han Chinese, from the People’s Republic.

Miracles are not part of the Buddhist way of thinking, and if there is one thing this Dalai Lama stresses, it’s his humanity, and all that joins him with the rest of us (he likes nothing less than being taken as something special). China and Tibet will long be neighbours, he points out, and in any neighbourhood throwing a stone through your neighbour’s window, even in retaliation, will not only poison relations between you for a long time, but unsettle the entire community. And, as he has been saying since long before this year’s demonstrations in Tibet, what is important is not what happens this summer, when the world is looking at China (and China to some extent needs and seeks the approval of the world), but what happens after the Games are over, when the world’s eye turns towards Iraq, or the global economy, or the presidential election in the US. A monk always thinks in terms of generations, where a traditional politician is more inclined to think in terms of moments – or until the next election. But when a monk joins the world of politics and, in fact (as in the Dalai Lama’s case) becomes the most seasoned political leader on the planet having been ruler of his people for 68 years, he is opening a window from which everyone can benefit.

Let the Games begin, the Dalai Lama has been saying even as so many others still clamour for some visible signs of dissatisfaction; but let us remember, after they end, that they are just Games, and that the need for communication and a larger sense of identity that they embody are the main things we should keep stressing. China this month is showing off its undeniably impressive material accomplishments to the world; but in time, like Europe and America and Japan, it will see that bread alone is not sufficient. At that point Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism may be the one resource that China needs most desperately.